Look left, look right — but not at your cell phone in Honolulu crosswalks

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When you cross the street in Honolulu, look both ways — but NOT at the life-changing text your best friend just sent.

The city just approved a law making it illegal for pedestrians to “cross a street or highway while viewing a mobile electronic device.” The law covers video games, pagers and laptops, and the ubiquitous smartphones.

People won’t stop staring at their phones, so a Dutch town put traffic lights on the ground

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Bodegraven, a town in the Netherlands, has installed LED light strips on the sidewalk that synchronize with traffic signals and turn red or green at pedestrian crossings, so that people can’t miss them even if their eyes are cast down toward their smartphone screens. The lights were built by HIG Traffic Systems, a company that is based in the town, and so far have been installed at a single intersection for a pilot project, but the company hopes to spread the idea to other towns and cities if the trial is successful.

“The attraction of social media, games, WhatsApp and music is great and at the expense of attention to traffic,” said Kees Oskam, a local councilor. “As a government, we probably can not easily reverse this trend, but we want to anticipate it in there.”

 

The Guilty Secret of Distracted Parenting

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Parents at the playground looking at their phones while their children play, unsupervised. Parents at the Little League game checking their email and missing the all-important at-bat. Parents at dinner focused on the action on their screens, rather than the real people around the table.

We don’t always like to admit it, but taking care of small children is often quite tedious. When my three children were small, I wouldn’t have made it through without a certain amount of distraction.

 

Read This Story Without Distraction (Can You?)

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Stop what you’re doing.

Well, keep reading. Just stop everything else that you’re doing.

Mute your music. Turn off your television. Put down your sandwich and ignore that text message. While you’re at it, put your phone away entirely. (Unless you’re reading this on your phone. In which case, don’t. But the other rules still apply.)

Just read.

You are now monotasking.

Maybe this doesn’t feel like a big deal. Doing one thing at a time isn’t a new idea.

Indeed, multitasking, that bulwark of anemic résumés everywhere, has come under fire in recent years. A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that interruptions as brief as two to three seconds — which is to say, less than the amount of time it would take you to toggle from this article to your email and back again — were enough to double the number of errors participants made in an assigned task.

Earlier research out of Stanford revealed that self-identified “high media multitaskers” are actually more easily distracted than those who limit their time toggling.

Happier Podcast: The Challenges of Being Distracted by Your Phone

This episode of Gretchen Rubin’s Happier Podcast recently had an interesting discussion of the misinterpretations of people’s behaviours based on mobile device usage. Starting around the 15 minute mark, they share stories like: someone thought another parent was being rude at a presentation because they kept looking at their phone, but that person was actually using it to take notes. Or another person kept looking at their watch, but they weren’t checking to see how the time was dragging; instead they were waiting for an important message via their Apple Watch. They recommend warning someone if you’re expecting a call, “my babysitter might be calling me, so excuse me if I glance at my phone.”

 

 

The End of Reflection

Illustration by Jon Han

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There are many moments throughout my average day that, lacking print reading material in a previous era, were once occupied by thinking or observing my surroundings: walking or waiting somewhere, riding the subway, lying in bed unable to sleep or before mustering the energy to get up.

Now, though, I often find myself in these situations picking up my phone to check a notification, browse and read the internet, text, use an app or listen to audio (or, on rare occasions, engage in an old-fashioned “telephone call”). The last remaining place I’m guaranteed to be alone with my thoughts is in the shower.

“Finding moments to engage in contemplative thinking has always been a challenge, since we’re distractible,” said Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows.” “But now that we’re carrying these powerful media devices around with us all day long, those opportunities become even less frequent, for the simple reason that we have this ability to distract ourselves constantly.”

It is therefore “a reasonable conjecture,” Dr. Fleming said, if we think of navigating the world — physically, as a flâneur might, or mentally, when pondering something — as a “first task” and looking at one’s phone as a “second task,” that the latter hinders our capacity to reflect. “The prefrontal cortex is good at doing one thing at a time,” he said. “If you put people in a dual-task setting, part of the reason things become impaired is because that secondary task interferes with the functions involved in introspection.”

Nevertheless, he sees our current direction as indicative of “the loss of the contemplative mind,” he said. “We’ve adopted the Google ideal of the mind, which is that you have a question that you can answer quickly: close-ended, well-defined questions. Lost in that conception is that there’s also this open-ended way of thinking where you’re not always trying to answer a question. You’re trying to go where that thought leads you. As a society, we’re saying that that way of thinking isn’t as important anymore. It’s viewed as inefficient.”

 

Trending at Halftime: N.B.A. Players Checking Their Phones

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The professional sports locker room is a sanctuary, a place that is supposed to be free of outside distractions. At halftime of an N.B.A. game, for instance, players sit attentively, absorbing the coach’s instructions. They rehydrate, and maybe even change into a fresh uniform. Their focus for those 15 minutes rests entirely on what must be done in the second half to win the game.

Except when they’re flicking through their smartphone notifications on the sly.

“I don’t think you should necessarily be coming in at halftime and start going through your mentions, but it’s just become habitual,” said Spencer Hawes of the Charlotte Hornets, who are playing the Miami Heat in the first round of the N.B.A. postseason. “What do you do when you’ve been away from your phone in any situation? You come in, check it, check if anyone texted you. I think halftime is kind of no different.”

The ritual has challenged the popularly held perception of the professional sports locker room as a scene of intense focus on the task ahead. It may not affect performance on the court, but it nonetheless signals a significant cultural shift for the veteran players who remember older times and a place, the locker room, that was free of digital distractions.

 

Are You “Over-Connected”?

(Josh Pulman) (Credit: Josh Pulman)

Photo: Josh Pulman

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A group of people wait by a monument, unaware of each other’s existence. A woman strides open-mouthed down a busy street, holding one hand across her heart. Two young men – brothers? – stand behind a white fence, both their heads bowed at the same angle.

These are some of the moments captured in photographer Josh Pulman’s ongoing series called Somewhere Else, which documents people using mobile phones in public places (see pictures). Almost every street in every city across the world is packed with people doing this – something that didn’t exist a few decades ago. We have grown accustomed to the fact that shared physical space no longer means shared experience. Everywhere we go, we carry with us options far more enticing than the place and moment we happen to be standing within: access to friends, family, news, views, scandals, celebrity, work, leisure, information, rumour.

Little wonder that we are transfixed; that the faces in Pulman’s images ripple with such emotion. We are free, if “free” is the right word, to beam stimulation or distraction into our brains at any moment. Via the screens we carry – and will soon be wearing – it has never been easier to summon those we love, need, care about or rely upon.

Yet, as Pulman himself asks, “If two people are walking down the street together both on the phone to someone else, are they really together? And what is the effect on the rest of us of such public displays of emotion, whether it’s anxiety, rage or joy?” To be human is to crave connection. But can our talent betray us? Is it possible to be “overconnected” – and, if so, what does it mean for our future?

 

 

What You’re Hiding from When You Constantly Check Your Phone

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In my personal experience, mindlessly relying on my phone and computer has been a useful, albeit insidious, way of avoiding uncomfortable feelings. After all, how many of us regularly accept and embrace those moments when we feel weird or bored or lonely? We usually text a friend, refresh our Twitter feed, or check our email — or reach for a snack or a cigarette. In my own life, I noticed this habit when I quit smoking cigarettes last year. Around that time, a yoga teacher advised me to meditate on what I was feeling during the moments when I craved a cigarette. I realized that I wanted a cigarette most intensely when walking from point A to point B and while waiting for other people to arrive — moments when I had nothing to distract me from the discomfort of simply being with myself. I am sure other smokers can relate to this feeling of cigarette-as-avoidance.

Phones and cigarettes are not the only things that help us turn away from the parts of ourselves we don’t like—anxiety, anger, our fears, our unfulfilled desires, and our need to assert boundaries and take care of ourselves. Whether it’s snacking, smoking, or e-mail refreshing, all these avoidance tactics can serve the same purpose. But phones are among the most socially acceptable.

The distraction afforded by constant connection to social media, news, email, and texting may feel comforting in the short term, but in the long term it may sap what poet John Berryman referred to as “inner resources.” In enabling us to avoid ourselves, our phones allow us to look away from anxious feelings instead of trying to resolve them. I’d hazard the guess that when most of us feel that itch to check our email for the umpteenth time while out to dinner — just to make sure we haven’t missed a call — we actually aren’t as concerned with FOMO, or fear of missing out, as we think. Sure, some of us may truly fear the wrath of a demanding boss on the other line, or a friend (or family member) may be in need. But mostly, we’re trapped in that technology-stress paradox: we share the desire for greater freedom from our devices, and yet that very freedom itself causes anxiety. It makes us ask ourselves what life would feel like if we were really forced to sit with ourselves.

 

Motherhood, Screened Off

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Parents today are often chastised for being distracted by their devices, for devoting more attention to their phones than to their children. I concede that Twitter provides, at times, a more witty conversation than the one I might have with a 6-year-old; that there is, in fact, always some excuse to turn to the device and tune out a small child’s rant about the problem with peanut butter; that the feeling of productivity the phone engenders is as addictive as it is false.

But it seems safe to say that our own parents probably gave more attention to their myriad daily tasks than they did to their children, too, and even did so in their children’s presence. I see my mother, circa 1982, the bills spread out on the kitchen table, her checkbook in front of her; I hear her on the phone as she is writing down directions to someone’s house. The difference is that those tasks, by virtue of not all transpiring on one opaque device, were tangible and thus felt legitimate.

I have started to narrate my use of the phone when I am around my kids. “I’m emailing your teacher back,” I tell them, or, “I’m now sending that text you asked me to send about that sleepover,” in the hopes that I can defang the device’s bad reputation, its inherent whiff of self-absorption.